Understanding the complexities of the ground we walk upon can help point us to a new way of relating with the land.
“We are the land …. The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs …. It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. It is our self.”
— Indigenous American poet, novelist, activist, and professor Dr. Paula Gunn Allen
Beneath our feet is a complex and humble habitat as vital to the built environment as it is to life itself. Dirt is known by many names: “earth,” “ground,” “soil,” or simply “the land.” It is also one of our oldest building materials. Even the virtual metaverse is built with the ground’s riches — six millennia after Egyptians and Mesopotamians found that melting sand created glass — relying on lustrous silicon dioxide layers to protect each of the quintillion transistors manufactured annually. When architects perceive earth only as a commodity, we overlook the significance of this complex, living ecology and, in the process, miss the opportunity to align environmental goals with broader community needs.
Dirt in the Lone Star State is incredibly diverse. Texas boasts 1,300 different soil series, which fall under a globally recognized classification system called soil orders. Soil is a mixture of water, bacteria, and other microorganisms that clings to a substrate of parent rock; among its mysteries are the building blocks for antibiotics, materials, food, fuel, and carbon storage. The ground is an immense home to 25 percent of the world’s known species, which contribute to the structure of soil by shaping pathways for air and water movement. All life is connected to the ground in a symbiotic relationship with both physical and emotional implications — often diminished in the design process — that extend beyond the metes and bounds of any one project.
An understanding of our connection to earth must begin with a look at the liminal space between the ground and our built structures. Foundations are the primary connection point, and this valuable bond between the built and natural environments is too often relinquished to engineers to protect health, safety, and well-being, as well as economics, within a project. Structural engineer Dr. Joseph Colaco understands the unique challenges that come when working with the ground. His storied career includes contributions to the designs of high-rise buildings all over the world, from Chicago’s 100-story John Hancock Center and Houston’s 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower to the 160-story Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai and more.
“Economics generally are the driving force in the selection of foundation systems,” says Colaco. He explains that as global populations become increasingly urban, cities will require taller buildings constructed on stronger and deeper foundations to accommodate greater density; this, in turn, places increasing pressure on natural resources.
One example is the disappearance of sand used in the manufacture of concrete. This is a pressing concern affecting foundation construction. Much of the aggregate now found in concrete is actually fine crushed stone used in lieu of sand. “Sand isn’t coming from the beaches because of salt contamination,” Colaco explains. “A lot of the sand that we use [in Texas] we got from riverbanks, but there isn’t much left.… Sand is becoming a very scarce material worldwide.”
So how are we replacing the sand already extracted from the ground, and are there better foundation materials? Colaco describes the use of a coal waste product called fly ash as an alternative to cement. Chemically, fly ash combined with calcium hydroxide (also known as lime) forms cementitious compounds that result in a durable and chemical-resistant concrete mix. While utilizing a waste product instead of a threatened resource initially seems positive, it leads to dependency on coal and environmentally destructive practices that provide justification for their continued use.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Texas is among the nation’s top 10 coal producers and the nation’s largest coal consumer. Forty coal-fired generators and 12 active coal mines provide energy to Texas businesses and residents, including Reliant Energy, Dynegy, Luminant, CPS Energy, and NRG, among others. In January 2020, Dr. Joseph Davidovits of the Geopolymer Institute in Saint-Quentin, France, reported that manufacturing one metric ton of fly ash generates 33 metric tons of CO2 emissions — a statistic overlooked by many specialists, including United Nations environmental experts. Proponents of fly ash argue that the CO2 contained within it should not be calculated as part of its overall carbon footprint, since the CO2 has already been spent in the production of electricity.
Nevertheless, Davidovits believes that better alternatives exist: “The solution is to develop and implement geopolymeric systems relying solely on geological resources, such as ferro-sialate geopolymer cement and the like.” Geopolymers are rock-based binders that are created by taking elements rich in iron oxides and ferro-kaolinite (produced by the weathering of acidic rocks like granite) and treating them at high temperatures of 1,112 to 1,560 degrees Fahrenheit. The materials harden when cooled to room temperature and provide compressive strength in the range of 75-90 MPa at 28 days. Davidovits’ research cites the discovery of ancient red geopolymer sandstone monuments in South America dating back 1,400 years, which highlights, in his words, “the extraordinary long-term durability of this geopolymer molecule.”
Research is ongoing, but interest is lagging at the municipal, academic, and private levels primarily due to the global reliance on concrete construction and coal energy. Economic and political interests invested in current methods of production, coupled with inconclusive sustainability arguments for fly ash, are obstacles to the funding of research for better options. One thing is clear, though: Coal production and fly ash aren’t long-term solutions, as they ignore greater ecological imperatives and leave more regenerative options unexplored.
Cities are at the forefront of the conversation about land ethics. Katie Coyne, environmental officer for the city of Austin and assistant director of its Watershed Protection Department, is acutely aware of the critical need for sustainable planning strategies. In her cross-departmental role, Coyne oversees all environmental policy and long-term visioning for Austin. “There is an opportunity to really rethink what we call environmentalism in the city and how we embed more holistic thinking in that word’s meaning,” says Coyne. “My goal in taking this position — and what folks get excited about — is trying to think more about these other pieces, like climate justice, public health, biodiversity, and conservation, that are interconnected with our larger environmental goals.”
Rather than tackling green infrastructure problems in a piecemeal fashion, Coyne approaches her work through multifunctional systems thinking. By collecting robust data that transcends disciplines, vulnerabilities revealed in the city’s infrastructure may also point to social disparities that can be addressed through more thoughtful, community-engaged development. But implementing these systems isn’t easy, particularly when it must draw upon the expertise of disciplines with vastly different approaches to problem solving. As Coyne describes, engineers want indisputable data to support sustainable urban design; scientists also want that but recognize data under real-world conditions can be fuzzy; meanwhile, designers typically use iterative trial-and-error methods to work through possible design solutions. Not only is there a vast gap between these approaches, but they point to an underlying ethical dilemma: Is it better to test innovative but unproven green infrastructure techniques in places with fewer environmental and economic vulnerabilities? Or is it better to test them in places of greater need — usually at-risk neighborhoods with already marginalized populations — where there is less tree canopy, where there are more heat island impacts, and where the risk is greater because of unknown outcomes? Coyne acknowledges: “That is a tough question, but I suppose you need to find the line where confidence in newer technology is high enough to not deny vulnerable communities the most innovative solutions.”
Unearthing a New Land Ethic
In recent decades, scientists have proposed that we’ve entered a new geologic era — the Anthropocene. The word, which comes from the Greek words anthropos, meaning “man,” and cene, meaning “new,” implies that humans now exert the greatest influence of any species on the planet, affecting virtually all of its processes. While the epoch has yet to be formally adopted by the International Union of Geological Sciences, it’s clear that humans have made a significant impact on the Earth — one that is likely to be reflected in the rock strata. Now more than ever, architects have a moral imperative to address not just how we inhabit this epoch, but how we should evolve in the future to survive the consequences of prioritizing industrialization and economic gains over environmental needs. We must become architects of a new geologic time scale looking beyond the Anthropocene to begin to find and apply strategies that integrate land ethics alongside other project goals.
An architect, professor, and member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Wanda Dalla Costa, AIA, of Tawaw Architecture challenges the traditional role of architects through the idea of “placekeeping” — as opposed to placemaking. Placemaking as a term is conceptually problematic because it is based on a binary assumption that characterizes spaces as either made by designers or a tabula rasa ready for intervention. Placekeeping, on the other hand, recognizes existing indigenous cultural philosophies, practices, and natural conditions, going even further to conceptualize the city as a community, not merely an economic organism.
Core concepts of placekeeping include elevating spatial agency, or the idea that a building is not always the best solution. Placekeeping centers on the needs of a community and aligns them with the needs of a place. Looking at spaces holistically and embedding into our work a land ethic that honors ancestral knowledge — as well as the ground — helps us to understand the land as a living ally rather than a resource for exploitation.
Environmental imperatives will soon supersede the economic incentives to ignore them. A study published in 2022 by the journal Nature Climate Change garnered national attention after revealing that the western U.S. and northern Mexico are experiencing the driest period of the last 1,200 years. Rainfall filters through fissures in the ground to recharge places like the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs, spanning from South Dakota to North Texas. At 174,000 square miles, it is 46 percent larger than all the Great Lakes combined and supports one-fifth of all wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle production in the United States. Since the early 1900s, the main source of potable and agricultural water in the Panhandle region has been the Ogallala, with most of the water pumped from the ground used for irrigating crops in the abundant surrounding farmland. And now it’s drying up.
A founding principal of the architecture studio DUST (along with his partner Cade Hayes, AIA), Jesús Edmundo Robles Jr., Assoc. AIA, recognizes that “our relationship to the groundscape is going to be paramount” when building for drought resiliency in places like Texas, Arizona, and other western U.S. states. He observes: “We’ve evolved very far — from pyramids to going to Mars. We should be able to engineer and cohabit while taking care of natural cycles and occurrences. It’s a new paradigm.”
“Dust” conjures the sensation of particles in the air, and Robles considers their name to be part philosophy and part atmosphere, binding us to the memory of the land. He credits American author, scientist, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold with influencing his thoughts on land stewardship. Leopold, a preeminent scholar of land ethics practicing just after the turn of the 20th century, was quoted as saying, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, ‘the land.’”
Robles looks at design as a mutual exchange rooted in balance, and he includes the earth from the beginning of his design conversations. “If we are part of what Aldo Leopold says is this ‘biotic community,’ then everything is in service of another. There is a give, and there is a take. We are in a position as a species to really decide what our give is, because we’ve already been taking.”
The Texas Tech University College of Architecture is cultivating a shift in thinking about the Earth through its innovative Land Arts of the American West program, led by director Chris Taylor. The program’s website describes it as “a transdisciplinary field program dedicated to expanding awareness of the intersection of human construction and the evolving nature of our planet.” Students, artists, architects, and writers traverse 6,000 miles over two months while camping and collectively experiencing major land art monuments.
Taylor argues that a big part of the challenge in addressing ecological and environmental concerns is in how we talk about them. Facts can take us only so far, but the arts and narrative can offer new ways of thinking, connecting, and communicating ideas about our relationship with the planet. This is precisely what architects of the new epoch need: clear and effective communication skills. Taylor sees the ecological and social peril we are in, acknowledging there is plenty of work for architects to do, not only to empower communities, but also to help society understand the limits of our natural resources. “If we see ourselves and the discipline as agents of restructuring balance, and thinking of architecture as a lever increasing empowerment and connection to the earth — to the resources and human social systems — we can imagine much different architectures,” says Taylor. “For way too long we have been servants of capital that were just doing the things people were willing to pay us to do.”
The notion of providing clients with more than they ask for is the charge of the architect and only one facet of how we can begin to address land ethics. If economics are preventing the integration of environmentally sensitive design, then we must look for ways to make it cost-effective, either immediately or in the long term through life-cycle analysis. We must focus on the visual and verbal communication of these goals. As architects, we are taught how to draw our ideas. Could we go beyond climate diagrams to draw the parti of the land? Embracing the power of communication and seeking opportunities to let art inform action will invigorate our communities and open up space for innovation. When we find success, let us document and share it so the world will recognize our work, not just as a single project but as part of a movement that brings design back to values — for life and for the land.
Jes Deaver, AIA, is an architect and writer in Austin.